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Culling and scowling

Betsan Powys | 16:28 UK time, Tuesday, 24 March 2009

There weren't even seven of us in the gallery this time - not if you discounted the security men who sat impassively in their dark suits, given away by their intricate ear-pieces and darting eyes.

Down in the chamber, on the other side of the glass wall that always serves as a buffer zone between the public and the politicians, the Rural Affairs Minister, Elin Jones, was spelling out in where exactly in Wales the Assembly Government intends to go ahead with the plan to cull badgers. The "intensive action area" covers around 200 square kilometres in north Pembrokeshire where around a thousand badgers will be in the firing line. The Minister has been advised that the most effective and humane method of killing badgers is cage trapping and shooting.

The elderly couple looking on seemed uninterested. The same went for the young couple but his hoodie and her bulging file had caught the nearest security man's eye.

Yes, said Elin Jones, this was an emotive issue.Yes, the only thing the scientists can agree on is that they cannot agree. There is no 100% hard and fast evidence that proves the Assembly Government is right to press on with a cull and that the UK government is wrong to try vaccines. But no, she was not guilty - as charged by some on the Labour backbenches - of being selective in her use of scientific evidence or in the way she'd interpreted that evidence. She's made a considered decision.

Joyce Watson glowered. Irene James scowled. Lorraine Barrett shook her head. Lesley Griffiths went for pleading. Please, would the Minister not reconsider and wait to see what can be learned from the English vaccination pilot areas, some of which may be just on the other side of Offa's Dyke?

The Minister could not. Her mind was made up.

Moral support came from Plaid's Deputy Assembly Group Leader, Helen Mary Jones. Spotting an empty seat behind their Rural Affairs Minister she jumped up and occupied it. The Minister sat down. The deputy rushed back to her own seat and typed furiously on her own keyboard. Up got the Minister. Back to the empty seat went the deputy, filling the camera shot, nodding her support, staring down the Labour backbenches.

Was the government truly committed to taking forward the bovine TB eradication plan or not, asked the Conservatives' very own farmer, Andrew R.T Davies? After all Labour's own Rural Affairs spokesperson was clearly dead set against them. Joyce Watson got a pat on the back. Elin Jones confirmed that, for the avoidance of doubt, yes, she was speaking on behalf of the government.

Student fees last week. Badgers this week. It's good to be reminded that both governing parties still have a few ... for today, let's call them reactors on their own backbenches.

Alun Davies shot up. He was flanked by glaring colleagues. He was glad the Minister was forging ahead with her plans. He's heard more than enough about TB in the rural area he represents - and it includes North Pembrokeshire - to know that something must be done. "We all wish there were alternatives" he said. "There are" muttered Irene James, looking as though she'd sooner trap him in a cage and shoot him than listen to any more of his argument.

A streak of a white blouse and a nearly black jacket meant Elin Jones was back on her feet and sensing the battle was over - for now.

The security men headed for the exit.

Helen Mary Jones returned to her seat.

The Minister started her round of the radio studios just as the press releases appeared. She was guilty of "massacring wildlife" to appease farmers and save the skins of rural politicians, of "giving the green light to bloodshed", of setting in train a "brutal pogrom." The Badger Trust Cymru were either choosing their words very carefully or with too little care - make up your own minds.

Remember Shambo? The fate of the sacred bullock from Carmarthenshire, who was infected with bovine TB, drew worldwide attention back in 2007. The Rural Affairs Minister, brand new to the job, learned early about long-running legal battles and noisy protests. She will by now have read the press releases and will know that her battle over badgers is not over.


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